International relations in a nonpolar world

    Only months after he declared his presidential candidacy, well before the nation would begin to take him seriously as a contender, Barack Obama made his first major foreign policy address. “The position of leader of the free world has remained open,” he said. “And it’s time to fill that role once more.”

    The foreign policy debates circulating over the past year have focused largely on the future of the world system. Will America remain the unparalleled leader in military, economic and political strength as the sole focus of an increasingly dynamic system? Or will the future appear as a bipolar face-off between the U.S. and radicalized states? Or will it be a fight between the developed economies and the emerging markets?

    While the answers to these questions remain unclear, the future of the world economy will hinge on the relative success of the U.S. and China in coalescing powerful political and economic networks. The key is no longer embedded within coalitions of states, but now within a stable, diverse web of corporate, governmental and non-governmental actors. To succeed in the coming decades, the U.S. will need to reshape its foreign policy mindset. The U.S. must begin to regard geopolitics less as a competition to move up in a power hierarchy and more as a challenge to define its interests within a network of powerful actors. In order to make this shift, the U.S. must communicate honestly with other actors to define comparable and competing interests, and to design long-term policies to realize those interests.

    The world is in a state of flux. While nations were once a bastion of stability, current conflicts between states and other powerful actors have ushered in an unprecedentedly dynamic world system. Before World War II, the world was multipolar; power was balanced between a set of influential governments that divided the rest of the world into spheres of imperial influence. The atrocities of the Second World War left two main powers to battle it out in a bipolar East-West conflict. For half a century, the world tenuously balanced between Washington and Moscow.

    After the Soviet implosion, Francis Fukuyama claimed that the so-called End of History was upon us. Charles Krauthammer argued that we were experiencing “a unipolar moment” in which the United States remained the sole superpower.

    Of course, it is unclear when the world transitioned from unipolarity to non-polarity, from coalitions to networks. While this shift was certainly the product of numerous factors, the invasion of Iraq was its most proximate cause. The U.S., with unilateral vigor and wanton neglect of international cooperation, entered Mesopotamia in violation of international laws and norms. In the process, it emboldened non-state extremist actors in the Arab world and extended America’s military footprint across Asia.

    Thus, as Richard Haass has argued, we live in a nonpolar world. Since there is no clear hierarchy between actors at the moment, states face two options. One: climb the perceived geopolitical hierarchy in an attempt to create the next unipolar moment. Or two: work within a network of state and non-state actors to pursue national, international and private interests.

    To favor the first option is to perceive a hierarchy that is impractical in today’s world. States and other actors are so deeply embedded at a variety of levels that one simply cannot dominate another. There is truly complex interdependence, as Robert O. Keohane and Joseph Nye so diplomatically put it. One state will inevitably fail if it attempts to climb a figurative ladder of geopolitical power. Its debts, dependencies, alliances and past political decisions will weigh it down. Innumerable factors in today’s international world limit one state’s ability to gain power without substantial sacrifice. International law and norms, designed to preclude unjust war and international economic abuses, have sought to limit this sort of hierarchy.

    The second option more accurately reflects the current geopolitical landscape. Today’s international politics acts like a stream of liquid flowing down a sloped surface. As the liquid flows down the slope, coalitions between individual actors — the bonds between molecules of the liquid — break and reconnect with nearly unpredictable rapidity, shaped by external and often indecipherable forces. We live and act within a complex, indescribable network of infinite actors with varying degrees of power. These circumstances should reconfigure how we approach foreign policy.

    The two most potent actors within this network are the U.S. and China. Both states are connected to a variety of actors and — as a result of those connections — wield significant influence throughout the pool. It is within this context that we should analyze the relationship between the U.S. and China and the larger implications for U.S. foreign policy. There are four specific points that should underpin our actions within the nonpolar world:

    1. President Obama, there will be no “leader” of the free world; there will be leaders. The United States should not direct its foreign policy to become the most powerful or even comparatively more powerful than other actors. Geopolitics is not hierarchical. Instead, the U.S. should spend its energies defining its interests and designing careful and prudent plans to pursue them internationally.

    2. The U.S. should make friends with the actors closest to China. Though I do not perceive China’s ascent to be a political or security threat, we should avoid the consolidation of 21st century blocs. If we allow the Chinese to develop a coalition with developing countries and related organizations, it is likely that the developing and developed worlds will become more insulated from one another and elevate the potential for conflict. Thus, it is important for the U.S. to implement competing (but not competitive) plans that build more constructive political and economic ties with African and Latin American countries. Any aid program must account for the increasing influence of non-governmental organizations and foundations that influence development politics.

    3. In a political network, we can characterize actors as positively, negatively or neutrally linked. If one actor (Bob) is positively linked to another (Joe), Bob has the leverage and power over Joe to exert significant influence. If Bob is negatively linked to Joe, he is dependent upon Joe and subject to his whims. Neutral linkages include basic, cooperative relationships between actors. U.S. foreign policy should set out to reduce negative linkages. For example, the U.S. maintains both negative and positive linkages with China. While China holds a great deal of U.S. debt (boxing in American diplomacy and ossifying its economic policy), the U.S. provides a crucial market for Chinese manufactured goods. A reduction in U.S. dependency — even at the expense of positive linkages — will make the U.S. less vulnerable to dramatic political change and thus improve overall geopolitical stability.

    4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently set forth the Smart Power doctrine. In diplo-speak, she argues that the U.S. should use cost-benefit calculations and diplomacy to guide U.S. foreign policy. She claims that the U.S. should focus on the protection and advancement of human rights. In order to promote human rights in a nonpolar world, the U.S. should focus on building stronger relationships with NGOs. The reports and lobbying of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and issue-specific human rights organizations help set the agenda for international courts. Concerning human rights, the U.S. government responds to these organizations, not the other way around. As such, developing stronger and more constructive ties with these organizations — which will include recognizing their enormous influence — is a must.

    Ultimately, I am proposing a new method of conceiving American foreign policy interests. It is not that we should no longer compete with other nations; it is that we should not engage in competition for the sake of competition. Conceiving the next decades as a brutal struggle between a few states is impractical and limiting. We need to open up our foreign policy to the infinite potential of pursuing our specific objectives. Once the U.S. realizes the breadth and depth of its geopolitical connections, an interest-based foreign policy will more likely satisfy humanists and pragmatists alike.


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